The strange science of gastrophysics
Want to cook up a delicious meal? It's not just about the food. We chat to psychologist Prof Charles Spence about the new science of eating.
What exactly is gastrophysics?
It’s a combination of ‘gastronomy’ and ‘psychophysics’, which involves the scientific study of how our experience of food and drink is affected by our senses and our surroundings, not just the food itself. It’s a small but growing area of research which brings together psychologists, neuroscientists, marketers, chefs, product designers, and even musicians.
So what kinds of things can affect our sense of taste?
Pretty much everything! From the colour and shape of the plates to the weight and material of the cutlery; through to the shape of the table and the feel of the chair you’re sitting on. Then there’s the number of people you’re with, the mood you’re in, the lighting and background music in the restaurant, and memories associated with the food. When you put all these factors together, it adds up to a lot.
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Just how important are these effects?
It’s hard to say exactly how much [of the taste] is down to the food and how much is the ‘everything else’, but Paul Bocuse, one of France’s foremost chefs, has said that more than half of the experience of what he serves is the ‘everything else’. Obviously some things matter more than others – the background music is going to have more of an impact than the shade of paint colour in the restaurant, for instance.
What’s the most surprising way in which our taste can be influenced?
It’s the idea of ‘sonic seasoning’, which uses sounds to change the taste of food. You can add as much as 15 per cent extra sweetness, sourness, or bitterness to a food simply by playing the right sort of music. We’ve created music to enhance sweetness (high-pitched and tinkling) and bitterness (low-pitched and brassy), and we also have music for sour, umami and spicy foods.
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Working with the Michelin-starred chocolatier Dominique Persoone in Belgium, we even showed that if we played ‘creamy’ music (slow and legato) in his stores we could add extra creaminess to his chocolate.
Neuroscientists have found direct connections in the mice brain between the senses of smell and sound, so it might be that this occurs in humans too. Sonic seasoning is already being used to enhance meals in fancy restaurants and culinary events, but we could also see it being used to benefit health by, for example, playing ‘sweet’ music so that we’re happy with less sugar in our food.
How is our sense of taste influenced by the colour of the plate?
There are probably two or three things happening here. It might be to do with the contrast between the colour of the plate and the colour of the food – our brain will find it harder to pick out porridge (and process its taste) when served in a white bowl, for instance.
A number of studies also show that serving food off red plates can suppress appetite, possibly because this is the colour of danger and ‘stop’.
And there’s also the effect of our expectations. If we’re used to eating ice cream from a round, white bowl, then our brain will already expect something sweet when we’re served food in a similar dish.
What’s the most innovative use of gastrophysics you’ve seen?
There’s a lot happening in the world of cutlery design. Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant The Fat Duck is currently serving a dish called Counting Sheep, which comes with a fluffy, weighted spoon that smells of baby powder, designed to enhance the eating experience.
We’ve found that food tends to taste better with heavier cutlery – possibly because we associate weight with quality.
- This article was first published in March 2017
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James is staff writer at BBC Science Focus magazine. He especially enjoys writing about wellbeing and psychology.
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